Monday, 12 October 2009

Why Rambo does not wear slippers.

Anyone who has played action games in the last decade at least might have noticed a tendency for these games to split into two major branches, two gravitational poles of the genre towards which titles keep moving into.

In one corner, we have the games in which the main character is a super powered behemoth, trudging relentlessly onwards through waves of “baddies”, spouting “bad-ass” one liners with a sarcastic smile on their face while they soak bullets and unleash hell on their enemies with either the kind of super power that would make Marvel writers gasp in amazement or the weapons stockpile that would make the pentagon look like an amateur firework shop. We’ll call these the “killers”, because the focal experience of these games is in the cathartic destructive potential of your individual. In other words, the fun here, the core of the experience in these games, comes from exploring the potential of your power on the scary looking but ultimately helpless waves of pawns the game throws at you. It’s a call to our primal urges of brute force, a way to act like an unstoppable vengeful god.

In the other corner, we have games in which the main character is usually a more realistically fragile being which, although still able to survive more than real humans, can only take so much before perishing, generally pitted against bigger or stronger (or both) forces where the player has to explore his intellect to defeat his opponents. We’ll call these “survivals”, because in this case the core of the experience is not to kill your enemies specifically, but to outlive them. Of course, this usually means you’ll have to kill them, but mostly because not doing so would lower your own chances of survival. While the initial difference for the “untrained eye” might not be more noticeable than a choice between “blast the door down and shoot everyone till they die twice” or “turns the lights off, sneak in through the window and knife everyone before they find the light switch”, the difference in feelings, and consequently experience, these different games evoke is considerable.

Which isn’t to say either is inferior to the other, on the contrary, both are complementary. Despite what some fans will have you believe, there IS room in this world for the “all out killer action!” and the “sneaky tactical survival game!”. The real issue here is not when developers pick one of these “sub-genres”, but when they decide to pick both. More is not always better, and a more concentrated, polished and focused experience, generally outweighs a broader but more diluted one. Let’s take two opposite games that focus a lot on a similar mechanic: Prototype and Assassin’s Creed.

Two games I like. Regardless of other extensive differences, both games focus a lot in parkour/free running, both follow the “one person against the world/fight the conspiracy” theme, but they both go about it in very different ways. In Prototype you’re a superpowered mutant to whom an entire army is little more than a nuisance, while in Assassin’s Creed you’re an assassin that can’t take a lot of punishment before going down (at least at first). A lot of criticism can be leveled with both of these games, but there’s one that’s more resounding than the others in both cases, which is when they try to be each other. Assassin’s Creed spends almost the entire game teaching you to run, hide, be sneaky, and only fight when absolutely necessary… Only to do a complete 180 and spend its final mission/s pitting you against entire armies with nowhere to run and no use for all the stealthy assassination techniques you spent the entirety of the game perfecting. Inversely, Prototype starts you off as an unstoppable monster full of different ways to handle any problem that might arise, fighting soldiers with particularly poor detective skills (apparently in that Manhattan it’s perfectly normal for people to crash-land a 100 ft fall and walk it off) and about half way through it decides to plop down some insufferable “infection scanners” everywhere, that can instantly detect you even if you’re doing nothing wrong or disguised as a soldier, and quickly detach hunter-gunship squads for any given reason to promptly shower you with missiles (which are considerably more effective against you than normal bullets), pretty much forcing you through the same motions (usually involving hijacking one of the gunships) and cutting down your own creative potential.

In both cases the attempt to “broaden” the original experience into something it’s not, only ended up detracting from the actual game. Sure, I like the option of getting in a brawl in a stealth-based game, or fighting and running for my life in a more gung-ho action game, but I want to do it when I feel like it. When the game forces me to do it, either by making them a final mission in AC’s case or throwing those “scanners” down everywhere in Prototype’s case, then it becomes a disconnected chore more than an alternative. This is the same reason why the same people who love stealth games, can (and usually do) also hate “forced stealth sections” in games, which are almost universally disliked by gamers. Because they’re a “forced” disconnect with the rest of the game.

So the question becomes: Can both sub-genres mix?

I know better than to use the word “impossible”, instead I’ll use the word “improbable”. Why? It’s certainly not technical limitations. It is, in fact, due to the emotions that serve as foundation for the experience in either types of game not mixing very well. Could there ever be such a thing as an “overpowered underdog”? How can you make a user feel threatened, legitimately worried about their own life if they’re also supposed to feel stronger, faster and overall better than their opponents?

I suppose the bottom line here is, it’s better to focus on what you want to do, and do it right, than to try and do everything, which almost always turns bad. And that’s why Rambo doesn’t wear slippers… Because he needs his boots to step on his enemies.

1 comment:

  1. I like what you've done there :)